Skip to main content

U.S. Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Region Viewing Area


Wyethia mollis. Woolly mule ears (Wyethia mollis) thrive on the thin volcanic soils along the Thunder Mountain trail. Mid-summer the wooly mule ears, lupines, and Indian paintbrush form breathtaking fields of wildflowers. Photo by Matt Brown.

Astragalus purshii var. tinctus. Woollypod milk-vetch (Astragalus purshii var. tinctus) is found growing on open rocky ridgetops along the Thunder Mountain trail. After flowering, this unique alpine plant in the pea family will form extremely woolly seed pods. Photo by Matt Brown.

Anemone drummondii. Drummond’s anemone (Anemone drummondii) is a spectacular sight in early summer. A member of the buttercup family, this species is found flowering soon after the snows melts on rocky slopes, summits, and open forests. Photo by Matt Brown.

Eriogonum ovalifolium var. nivale. Butterballs (Eriogonum ovalifolium var. nivale) are found growing above 8500 feet throughout the Sierra Nevada. Butterballs dense low-growing vegetation helps the plant withstand the harsh conditions found in the alpine zone. Photo by Matt Brown.

One of the many spectacular views available along the Thunder Mountain trail. One of the many spectacular views available along the Thunder Mountain trail. Photo by Matt Brown.

Thunder Mountain Trail

Forest: Eldorado National Forest

District: Amador Ranger District

Description: This is a self-guided, high elevation trail (starting at 8,000 feet) of moderate to easy difficulty. The trail starts at the parking area accessed from Highway 88 about two miles north of Silver Lake, and ends at the top of Thunder Mountain, near the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Round trip the hike is approximately 7 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet. Allow around five hours to complete your hike at a leisurely pace. This trail is not wheelchair accessible. Camping, fishing, mountain biking, and other hiking opportunities are all available in the area.

Viewing Information: The first leg of the Thunder Mountain trail provides a spectacular display of wildflowers on the volcanic slopes surrounding the trail. Some of the wildflowers in these impressive displays include woolly mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis), sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), indian paint brush (Castilleja sp), scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) and lupine species (Lupinus spp.). However, the wonderful alpine plants found growing near Thunder Mountain really makes this wildflower viewing area special. In addition to breathtaking views of Caples Lake and the peaks of the Carson Pass area, the curious hiker will likely find Payson’s draba (Draba paysonii var. treleasei), woollypod milk-vetch (Astragalus purshii var. tinctus), dwarf phlox (Phlox condensata), Drummond’s anemone (Anemone drummondii), and stemless mock goldenweed (Stenotus acaulis) growing on the open exposed ridges. These unique plants make the 1,400 feet elevation gain worth the trouble, but please be considerate and stay on designated trails. The best wildflower shows are between June and the end of July.

Safety First: Much of this hike is on exposed ridges at high elevations: carry plenty of water, wear sunscreen, and consider bringing a wide brim hat. The trail is rocky and uneven in places so wear sturdy footwear. Summer thunderheads are common in the Sierra Nevada, developing unexpectedly in the afternoon. Be familiar with what thunderheads look like and move away from exposed ridges if thunderheads begin to form in the area.

Directions: The parking lot for the Thunder Mountain Trailhead is accessed from Highway 88. The trailhead is on the east side of the highway, approximately two miles west of Kirkwood Mountain Resort and is marked with a USDA Forest Service sign clearly visible from the highway.

Ownership and Management: U.S. Forest Service, Eldorado National Forest, Amador Ranger District.

Closest Towns: About 2 miles west of Kirkwood Mountain Resort, California.